Louise Dahl-Wolfe (1895– 1989) was born in San Francisco. Aspiring to a career as a painter, she attended the California School of Design (now the San Francisco Art Institute), where she was greatly influenced by Rudolph Schaefer, known for his color expertise.
Dahl-Wolfe's Early Career
After completing her studies, Dahl-Wolfe designed electric signs from 1921 to 1923; in 1924 she began working for a leading decorator. In 1921 she was invited to the studio of photographer Anne Brigman; this meeting prompted her to buy her first camera, an Eastman bellows camera with a reflector made from a Ghirardelli chocolate box. She used her mother as the subject of her first pictures. Early photographic adventures included taking shots of herself and some friends nude on a beach, using the soft-focus style of her mentor. After Dahl-Wolfe befriended another San Francisco photographer, Consuela Kanaga, who taught her to use a 31/4-by-41/4-inch Thornton-Pickard English reflex camera with a Verito soft-focus lens, the two traveled together to Europe in 1927. While in Paris, Dahl-Wolfe bought a Pathé camera; in Germany she purchased a small film pack camera. On an excursion to Africa, she met Meyer (Mike) Wolfe, an artist from Tennessee, whom she subsequently married.
Dahl-Wolfe returned to San Francisco in 1928 and began taking commercial black-and-white photographs. Two years later, she and her husband spent a summer in a rented log cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, where she began photographing still-life subjects and the local mountain people. She developed her film with a darkroom light powered by the battery of a Model A Ford. After moving with her husband to New York, Dahl-Wolfe was introduced to Frank Crowninshield, then editor of Vanity Fair, who decided to publish her work. The documentary pictures of her Tennessee subjects were a sensation when they first appeared in the November 1933 issue of Vanity Fair. This success led to the publication of her first black-and-white fashion work in Harper's Bazaar in 1936 and her first color work a year later.
Dahl-Wolfe's Work in Color
Dahl-Wolfe was one of the first and most important practitioners of fashion photography in color. Kodachrome film came on the market for the first time in 1935, although the product at that time could not reproduce colors reliably either in the studio or in natural light. A striking aspect of Dahl-Wolfe's work was her color sensibility—a flawless instinct for combinations of colors. This emphasis on the painterly values of tone, line, and color is not surprising, since she had been trained as a painter and strongly influenced by the philosopher of art Clive Bell's theory of significant form. Bell maintained that color is an inherent part of the expressive quality of form and that arrangements of colors carry emotional weight—particularly bright luminous colors, which have a pleasing effect. Dahl-Wolfe's early training in color theory with the painter Rudolph Schaefer also influenced her interest in color photography. In order to achieve the exact effects she desired, she worked with the new eight-inch by ten-inch sheets of Kodachrome because they gave the highest degree of resolution and detail. She often consulted with the printers of the magazines she worked for in order to retain her subtly beautiful effects on the printed page.
Many of Dahl-Wolfe's photographs seem to be built up of colored planes rather than objects. Many of her shots for Harper's Bazaar are masterly combinations of compositional lighting, varied textures, repeated patterns, and a broad variety of shades, particularly earth-tone colors. For example, a simple black-and-white suit is seen through a darkened archway leading into a room of exotic warmth; in the room the model is the focal point within the mix of textures, patterns, and colors. The same natural light, here bounced through various screened patterns, is seen in another picture, where it filters through the organdy curtains in a room of lovely femininity and charm. The setting of this photograph was Louise Dahl-Wolfe's own bedroom in her home in Frenchtown, New Jersey, one of her favorite shooting locations. In addition to her pioneering use of color, she was also one of the first fashion photographers to make use of location shots, using architectural backgrounds and exotic locales to add interest to the way the clothing was pictured.
Dahl-Wolfe's style—elegant yet casual, sophisticated yet at ease—was ideally suited for depicting the independent American woman, wearing comfortable ready-to-wear styles by such American designers as Claire McCardell, Hattie Carnegie, and Norman Norell. Both the models and the clothes had a naturalness and authenticity that conveyed a cool and comfortable yet ineffably chic informality. This informality is perhaps the essence of Dahl-Wolfe's style: The models, the clothes, and the way she chose to portray them reflected the relaxed accessibility of a distinctly American fashion sense.
Dahl-Wolfe had a long and productive career as a fashion photographer. She worked for Harper's Bazaar for twenty-two years, from 1936 to 1958, leaving shortly after the magazine's editor Carmel Snow and its legendary art director Alexey Brodovitch resigned. Her career included eighty-six Harper's covers and over six thousand color photographs as well as thousands of black-and-white pictures. After leaving Harper's Bazaar, Dahl-Wolfe worked briefly for Vogue before finally retiring from professional photography in 1960.
Bellafante, Ginia. "What Dahl-Wolfe's Eye Created in a Lens." New York Times, 6 June 2000.
Dahl-Wolfe, Louise. Louise Dahl-Wolfe: A Photographer's Scrapbook. Preface by Frances McFadden. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984.
Goldberg, Vicki, and Nan Richardson. Louise Dahl-Wolfe: A Retrospective. Foreword by Dorothy Twining Globus. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000.
Hall-Duncan, Nancy. The History of Fashion Photography. New York: Alpine Book Company, 1979.